A Journey of Re-imagining Education: Interview with Manish Jain
Shikshantar, a Jeevan Andolan (life movement), was founded in 1998 to challenge the dominant model of education and to generate new models of self-designed learning and swaraj-development/localization. Today factory schooling is killing many diverse forms of knowledges, human learning and expressions due to which our children are forgetting not only their culture but also are losing their creative consciousness. Manish Jain, one of the Co-Founder’s of Shikshantar Andolan, Swaraj University and Creativity Adda, a Harvard Alumnus, has worked at Morgan Stanley investment bank, UNESCO, UNICEF and with various international NGOs. He is a de-educationist, social innovator, public intellectual/writer/speaker, filmmaker, facilitator, coach, urban farmer, clown, slow food chef, trekker and cyclist. In an exclusive interview with Sheena Sachdeva, Manish Jain traces his journey’s important landmarks and further prospects in the education sector of the country.
From Harvard to Wall Street to UNESCO to becoming a social innovator, how has been your journey till here?
As a student in school, I remember being bounced back and forth between honors classes and remedial classes due to my rebellious questioning nature and boring classes/uninspired teachers. I started to notice that the ‘dumb’ children were not really dumb and comprised of various gifts which the school system was not able to see or appreciate. I noticed that many of those being labeled as ‘dumb’ or ‘slow learners’ were either from minority or low-income backgrounds. Once you label children into a category, it was very difficult to get out of it. This seemed very unfair from a social justice perspective. Gradually, I realised that using IQ tests and labelling millions of innocent children as ‘failures’ is one of the greatest crimes against humanity.
My parents always pushed me to pay attention towards studies rather than ‘extra-curricular’ activities. I always resisted because I felt I was learning more through these ‘extra’ activities (such as starting my own businesses, community service, working on a newspaper, playing sports, etc.) which encouraged me to interact in meaningful ways with the real world. It is ridiculous that schools only recognize the learning that happens as a result of classroom teaching and negates the learning that happens in everyday life. I also started to understand how the education system was based on fear, driven by rewards and punishments. There was virtually no time or space to explore oneself. As a kid, I felt that one day I should change the education system.
After working with Wall Street, I began to see that most of the horrible crimes against people and the planet were being committed by the so-called brilliant ‘Ivy League educated’ people, not by the ‘uneducated’ people. I wondered why the ‘educated’ people behaved this way. I started to understand what role the modern education plays in disconnecting us from our inner conscience, from our hands, from our hearts and from nature. It makes us slaves in the global economy. I felt that the purpose of my life should not just be to help rich people get richer.
After visiting and working in many villages in Africa and India, I noticed that schooling was a primary vehicle for spreading the ‘West is Best’ monoculture. Today’s ‘educated’ students are ashamed of their traditions, communities, local languages, working with their hands and their elders. This has disrupted our notions of community, and has left many people feeling alone, inferior and depressed. My own father was a victim of this. And so was I. Today, it has become very clear to me that the strong interest in ‘educating the tribals’ is very much linked to an agenda of displacing tribal communities from their land (which are full of valuable natural resources). It is also about converting rural communities into urban-like consumers.
Along with this, I also started understanding the nexus of propaganda and control between the mega corporations, the government, the military and the World Bank, UN and mega NGOs and factory schooling i.e. how the elite ruling class is set-up and maintained through factory schooling, how education is so deeply tied to social exploitation and ecological destruction, and how the entire game is unfairly rigged. I could see that we were on the Titantic. What was really needed was a larger process of rethinking development and changing the fundamental rules of the game. Gandhiji’s book Hind Swaraj became very useful in helping me to make sense of my experiences and offer a way forward.
After working with many international development agencies, governments, schools and NGOs, I gave up on trying to improve the schools. I felt the most useful thing I could do with my life is to expose the lie of this fake education system. In other words, to help students break-free from the suffocating logic of factory-schooling. My village grandmother helped me to see that lots of illiterate and uneducated people have lots of important knowledge and wisdom which is needed to solve many challenges that we face on the planet. We need to reclaim these people from the education dumpsites. That’s how my wife and I came to this vision of ‘Shikshantar Andolan’.
You have performed different roles across different sectors. When did you realise that Alternative Education is your actual calling?
After my experiences with the UN, Harvard and Wall Street, I learned that factory schooling is promoted to build new global markets and to destroy local economies and local cultures.
The first major unlearning milestone for me was to start questioning whether the so-called experts really had all the answers to the world’s problems. The second unlearning milestone was to question whether the poor illiterate villagers and tribals were really as poor, powerless or stupid as we were taught they were. The third milestone I had to overcome was the belief that the system could be reformed or fixed with more money or technology.
I think we need to shift our consciousness and imagination to get out of the global mess that we are in on the planet. I used to think that modern education was part of the solution but then I realized that it is a big part of the problem. At the same time, it became clear to me that going to Harvard was a waste of precious time —so I would never send my children to school. So my wife and I decided to create a resource center to support us in creating a village of creative people to raise our children. The two famous ancient stories Eklavya and Nachiketa, which capture the spirit of self-design learning and deschooling ourselves, were a strong inspiration for us as was my village grandmother.
We wanted to create a space where people who were aware of deep critiques of factory-schooling could come together and engage in creative ways to dismantle the educational monopoly and to co-create diverse learning spaces, processes and knowledge systems. We wanted to promote the idea that it was possible for people to learn on their own without the force and structure of dominant institutions. We wanted to create a space where we could draw from traditional knowledges and the spirit of the gift culture to change our lives. We wanted to create an intergenerational space which would support our children’s learning (since we decided not to send them to school) and our own unlearning and uplearning. I particularly wanted to have a working life which was not a boring routine, one which everyday gave birth to something inspiring.
How did you practically start things?
The first few years were spent on connecting to innovative people around the country who were interested in more radical alternatives to the factory-schooling model. We also spent a lot of time exploring our local community, meeting with artisans, artists, grassroots healers, farmers, tribal communities, youth, children in kachi bastis and in elite schools, NGOs, entrepreneurs. We started some small experiments like the community-based Learning Parks at that time. We also started Vimukt Shiksha magazine as a platform to host many important education debates which we felt were missing in India. We hosted the first Learning Societies Unconference in 2002. Most importantly, we also spent a lot of time unlearning many of our own ways of working. Shri Dayal Chand Soni, a local Gandhian in Udaipur who had done a lot of work on nai taleem, was particularly influential in challenging us to ‘walk the talk’.
We realized that alternative education means learning from Life, not from textbooks, exams and classrooms. So we got into all kinds of lifestyle explorations such as slow food, zero waste, upcycling and design thinking, healing, community media, theatre, organic farming, natural dyeing, eco-architecture, etc. Our daughter was a very big catalyst for our early explorations because she constantly raised the question for us of how do we really want to live our lives. For all of our experiments, we made sure that we were the first guinea pigs.
Deschooling is not really about school or no school. That is a dead-end debate. For me, it is essentially about opening up questions like: who should decide what is the purpose of my life?; who should decide how i live and learn?; who should decide what ‘i’ or ‘we’ even means?
Nine years ago, I helped start Swaraj University, which is India’s first self-designed people’s university where each learner (ages 17–28) could join and work on their unique dreams. We have demonstrated that you do not need a formal degree to do well in life. Two years ago, I helped start the Creativity Adda unschooling project in a local low-income government school with class 6–12 students in north Delhi, to show that these ideas of deschooling ourselves was possible across economic and social hierarchies.
How do you anticipate the future of education in India?
I think that the entire Game has changed but 99.9% educators and teachers are unwilling to accept it. We need to invite them to understand that doing more of the same or just improving the existing system will not be good enough to either meet the needs of the students or the needs of the country.
There are three very important trends to look at. I see a future where modern education is creating more and more unemployment among youth. The promise of getting a good job is fading fast. Also there is a huge amount of dissatisfaction in those people who do get a job — many people actually hate their jobs or find the work they are doing quite meaningless. So degrees are losing their value. This is going to hopefully lead to more and more young people venturing out of schools and colleges to explore themselves, to develop their different skills and real world interests, and to work on their own startups.
The second significant trend is the new digital technologies that are becoming more and more accessible to youth. This is a double-edged sword. Of course, there are lots of exciting online learning opportunities such as MOOCs, Ted talks, DIY videos, etc. But the dangers are technological addiction and technological utopianism. So educational innovators must encourage a strong discipline of ‘unplugging’ and a culture of healthy skepticism before adopting any new technology. There are a lot of technology salesmen out there and we must be able to cultivate a dynamic wisdom to assess which technologies are really necessary and beneficial.
The third trend is a growth of many new different eco-careers which are not dependent on formal schooling or degrees. I call these Alive-lihoods. We have spent the past 100 years on industries that have destroyed eco-systems, I think that in the next 100 years we have to create enterprises which regenerate the planet. Luckily, I see that there is a higher premium growing in youth on doing work that matters and that makes them feel alive, not just any job.
Unlearning is the first thing we need to focus on in education, that is, decolonizing and deconditioning our minds. I believe that a focus on unlearning will create new spaces for rethinking everything we have been taught and for moving beyond our fear and scarcity-driven mindsets.
I foresee that many new models of education based on self-designed learning, like Swaraj University, will emerge in the coming years. With crisis, there are lots of opportunities. We recently initiated the Indian Multiversities Alliance which features 10 peoples’ universities from around the country. More are soon to come.
First published by Medium
Contact Manish Jain